Productivity hacks to help you go deep

Set a schedule to keep out distractions - like emails - so that you can have a few hours of deep thinking to help you accomplish important work for the day

THE secret to running a trillion-dollar company looks a lot simpler than it should. At least, if you're Jeff Bezos. The Amazon founder would schedule just about two hours - after 10am and before lunch - for "high-IQ" decisions, and considers it a good day if he makes just three good decisions.

Even without running a juggernaut business, we too fight against various distractions that stop us from making effective decisions on a professional level.

The most obvious distraction comes in the form of emails. The ordinary corporate warrior is working through hundreds of emails a day, and we rarely question the madness behind this. But if we reframe emails as 100 faxes a day or 100 15-minute phone calls a day, the impact of this assault of such incessant messages on our mental state should cause more concern than it actually does.

It seems we need to find ways to think better, and to do more with less. A book by Cal Newport, an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University, spells out strategies to conduct deep thinking to boost productivity.

In Deep Work, Newport splits the work we do into two simple categories: deep work and shallow work. Deep work, like the three decisions that Mr Bezos takes on daily, involves tasks that are highly demanding of cognitive skills. Shallow work involves low-value tasks that can be accomplished while distracted.

The trick, says Newport, is to find a ritual that keeps out the distractions - a few hours of deep thinking is enough to help you accomplish the big-picture tasks for the day.

It's easy to dismiss such scheduled deep-thinking sessions as a luxury for top executives. But there are cheap productivity hacks for mere mortals that help us to get more high-quality tasks done, and usher in a new sense of calm in managing our mental capacity.

One simple hack is to slow down emails, scheduling them to be sent at a specific time. Email services such as Microsoft Outlook already have this function embedded, and there are Chrome extensions such as Mixmax and Boomerang that work on corporate emails powered by Google.

This hack can have an outsized impact on your mental state and your productivity - but only if you figure out a timetable for deep work and shallow work.

Running the unread-email count to the hundreds is barbaric, to my mind; it feels little different from enjoying constipation. To clear my emails to zero, I typically do two big rounds of email clearance: once at 9am, and another at about 4pm. My "deep-work" sessions are from 1 to 3 pm, and from 5 to 7 pm.

But while I write my email responses in between the two "deep work" sessions, I'd delay send-offs to less urgent emails, so those emails arrive in inboxes at only about 6pm, leaving most recipients little time or energy to send proper follow-ups until the morning. This creates a new clockwork, but on my own watch.

I'd add that Mixmax's other functions have also been a blessing for productivity. The free basic service is integrated with the work calendar for seamless meeting scheduling. You can also conduct polls via email, with responses automatically collated in a spreadsheet. Users can pay a small monthly subscription for unlimited use.

A second hack in making better, bigger decisions involves making time to read deeply. Most people do want to keep up with current affairs or analyses in the news, but find it tough to find that mental alertness to digest these pieces.

One good solution is found in news-aggregation apps, such as Instapaper. The news-clipping app is free, and offers audio reading, as well as a text-highlight function. And if you read everything from trivia on the octopus' brain (it's doughnut-shaped!), to the lingering effects of the financial crisis, then you'd find great use for the folders in Instapaper to categorise stories.

Again, the hack is just half of the story. The caveat is to be disciplined in clearing the unread articles, or risk mental constipation again. My own rule is keep to no more than five unread stories at any time before setting aside a "deep work" time to digest these forms of journalism.

Finally, when there is a need to mentally unplug from all things digital, wielding a pen is highly effective. It's not so much the nostalgic kick that comes from writing with a physical tool, but the mental switch-out from a digital form, that makes this technique worthwhile. The cheapest hack here is to swipe some high-quality rollerball pens from hotels. For a middle-income splurge, a good weapon of choice is Pilot.

Stationery geeks, arise from the ashes of romantic calligraphy, and take your rightful spot in the productivity revolution.

The point is that the big driver behind Industrial Revolution 4.0 is not technology in itself, but how workers awaken to a truer form of human ingenuity, as machines take over the shallow work that is in the way of deep work. Cogito, ergo sum, said René Descartes. Now more than ever, we must stop to think, if we are to be.